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Exploring Sensor Networks for Battlefields and Rescue

Exploring Sensor Networks for Battlefields and Rescue

After terrorists flew commercial jets into the World Trade Center, the firefighters who rushed in to save lives were lost once the towers collapsed.

Colleagues and other rescuers on the outside had no means to locate these heroes among the heaping piles of twisted metal and crumbled concrete despite many advances in technology at the time. In the wake of the tragedy, the Department of Homeland Security said that future firefighters should be outfitted with vests that can measure and transmit vital signs and location to a home base using sensors.

Today, almost nine years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, such vests, if they exist, are not standard issue at most fire departments. Fred Strickland, an adjunct information technology instructor with South University — Montgomery, addresses the underlying technology issue in his book, Using Different Radio Bands to Provide More Flexibility: Using a Helio Based Protocol in a Battlefield Sensor Network with Directional Antennas and Enhanced Security. Strickland contends that such technology is necessary not only for homeland security and civil rescue, but for military combat situations as well.

Consider a soldier wounded on the field, Strickland says. “He may not be able to call in his position,” Strickland points out, either because the soldier is too hurt or because he must remain quiet to avoid giving away his position. Though some might argue that that such communication technology exists in some form already today — take, for instance, radios and GPS systems — Strickland believes they aren’t entirely adequate.

“Designers assume some things that are not based on reality,” he says.

Radios require someone to be on the other end reporting their location. If that person is injured or otherwise unable to communicate, the tool doesn’t work. A GPS system, meanwhile, can be rendered useless by anything that might block its signal, Strickland says.

Almost as important, he adds, is the fact that much of the existing technology can easily be detected by enemies and the security of the broader network can thus be compromised. “Security has become an important issue,” Strickland writes. “Whether it is a person having ‘fun’ reading private communication or a determined adversary that wants to do great damage, defenses are needed.”

To be effective in combat, a sensor system must also be able to survive. “Sensor nodes need to avoid detection,” Strickland writes. “If a node is destroyed, then the network needs to be robust enough to continue.” Another challenge: Sensors can lose power and slow or break the line of communication to the command center.

 In his book, Strickland explores many “helio” technologies and protocols developed over the past few decades that could conceivably be used in battlefield sensor networks. Like the Greek word “heliocentric,” which means from the sun or having the sun as the center, helio technologies rely on a base station for the processing of all data.

Of the helio protocols examined, Strickland concludes that one called HEAPINGS is the most mature and offers multiple benefits, such as the ability to pass information on in near real time; the ability to avoid detection; and the possibility that the sensor nodes in such a network could operate on low power at times and thus survive longer. HEAPINGS stands for “HEliocentric Ad hoc Protocol using Inferences and Nominal resources to provide a Global view with Security.” 

But for all its high points, HEAPINGS leaves room for improvement, which is why Strickland uses HEAPINGS as a jumping off point for his own approach. “Our novel concept could solve many problems and have enhanced security,” Strickland writes.

For one, Strickland’s concept would offer the ability for the network control station (NCS) to communicate with many nodes at the same time on several channels. The control station would also be equipped with high-speed processing so that it could handle large volumes of information.

 To explain why these are important factors, Strickland asks: Have you noticed that when you use a Wi-Fi location, as more laptops his the access point, the slower the network responds?  “By having the nodes spread out on several channels, the load per channel is reduced,” he says.

In addition, the NCS and the nodes that report to it would form an ad hoc network, meaning the nodes contact the NCS for a quick roll call, after which point the network is formed and the NCS has a table of all active nodes. Because the NCS would have a list of valid nodes, bogus nodes (planted by an enemy) would be prevented from joining the network, thus giving the network security.

And what about solving the challenge of power? HEAPINGS nodes do not relay messages and only those nodes with data transmit back to the control station, Strickland explains. The result is an entire network that would live longer than a typical node in another network.

At the end of his book, Strickland notes some of the criticism of his model. One reviewer of his concept said it was “neither new nor challenging” and thought that granting too much power to a single control station is risky because should that control station be compromised, the whole network could be paralyzed.

Mark DeSantis, president of Mobile Fusion Inc., suggests the real challenge to solve isn’t even in creating of a network of sensors.

“There are plenty of tech sensors, thousands really, capable of collecting all kinds of data and huge volumes of it,” says DeSantis, whose Pittsburgh company makes a software platform that integrates disparate data sources including sensor data, live feeds, and databases to generate actionable information for decision makers.

“The problem is you’re still relying on the human to interpret this data,” he says. “The bottleneck with military communication and monitored surveillance is not the quality or quantity of sensors, it the ability for humans to interpret data on a real time basis.”

There simply aren’t enough eyeballs back at the command post looking at the data collected by the sensors to make good use of it, he says.

“The challenge doesn’t necessarily lie in the hardware,” DeSantis says. “The frontier is in making the software intelligent enough to discern all the different objects, patterns, and events from the disparate data collected.”

In the conclusion of his book, Strickland admits: “HEAPINGS is a concept.  It is still immature, but it does suggest a new direction for research.”

In the civil sector, the helio method could help track firefighters moving through a burning building, Strickland says. On the battlefield, a fully developed helio method could give branches of the military a more precise ability to track events and the enemy on the ground.

In short, Strickland writes, “my approach should result in better safety, better solutions to the geo-location problem, saved lives, and better collection of information.”

Written by freelance talent for South Source.

© South University